[Screen It]

(2007) (Ryan Reynolds, Ray Liotta) (R)

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Drama/Action: After an aged mobster puts out a contract on his rival turned government informant, FBI agents try to keep the snitch alive as various hitmen and others arrive in hopes of collecting the bounty on him.
Buddy "Aces" Israel (JEREMY PIVEN) is a former Vegas magician turned mafioso who's had a falling out with his aged and ailing mentor Primo Sparazza (JOSEPH RUSKIN). Accordingly, the latter puts out a $1 million dollar contract on Buddy, a point that doesn't sit well with FBI Deputy Director Stanley Locke (ANDY GARCIA) or the two agents, Donald Carruthers (RAY LIOTTA) and Richard Messner (RYAN REYNOLDS), he has investigating them. Yet, Buddy would seem to be safe considering the feds have him locked inside the penthouse of a casino high-rise, surrounded by his own bodyguards -- Sir Ivy (COMMON), Hugo (JOEL EDGERTON) and Bernard "Beanie" Alfonso (CHRISTOPHER HOLLEY) -- on the inside, and various cops out in the hallway.

Word, however, has quickly spread about the lucrative bounty on Buddy's head and heart, thus drawing the attention of various hitmen and other unsavory types looking to make a figurative and literal killing. There's former cop turned bounty hunter Jack Dupree (BEN AFFLECK) and his two associates, "Pistol" Pete Deeks (PETER BERG) and the reluctant Hollis Elmore (MARTIN HENDERSON) who get information from mob attorney Rupert "Rip" Reed (JASON BATEMAN). Professional assassins Georgia Sykes (ALICIA KEYS) and Sharice Watters (TARAJI HENSON) are also on the case, as are the neo-Nazi Tremors, Darwin (CHRIS PINE), Jeeves (KEVIN DURAND) and Lester (MAURY STERLING).

Then there's legendary torturer Pasqual Acosta (NESTOR CARBONELL) and master of disguise Lazlo Soot (TOMMY FLANAGAN), who, like the others, try to work their way up to that penthouse, and will do anything to make the hit, all as the FBI tries to prevent that from happening.

OUR TAKE: 3 out of 10
In nature, most animals are opportunists -- if some need is present and the solution is there for the taking, it will be grabbed. That's especially true when it comes to food as well as social pecking orders. If any weakness is perceived, rivals or those that are simply hungry will literally pounce on the opportunity to satiate their desire.

Humans, of course, aren't that different. Yet, the greatest motivator for many isn't food or social status, but rather money. Thus, when a vulnerable individual might mean quick access to cash, the predators and scavengers alike arrive for the kill.

Such is the case in "Smokin' Aces," yet the latest entry in the hyperactive action dramedy genre, a cinematic class that's rarely successful as it takes just the right touch to pull off the various and sometimes disparate components. Fresh off the relative success of "Narc," writer/director Joe Carnahan tries his hand at it, but unlike the magician target in the film, no amount of slight of hand can fool the audience into thinking this works.

That is, unless the targeted viewers are what could best be described as moviegoing hooligans who enjoy in-your-face, over-the-top, and often obnoxious characters and moviemaking. What else could explain the presence of a young karate kid afflicted with a mixture of ADD and urban gangsta wannabe 'tude with a visually obvious -- as they like to say in certain circles -- Jones for both? Or the possibly gay (and I don't mean happy) neo-Nazi freaks who look and act like rejects from the old Mad Max films.

They're smaller parts of a larger story about Buddy "Aces" Israel, a 5-time entertainer of the year Vegas magician turned mafioso (played by Jeremy Piven who isn't allowed the opportunity to be believable in either guise). He's just had a contract put out on him by his former mob associate turned rival after becoming a snitch for Andy Garcia's Deputy Director of the FBI character (with Garcia almost playing the part exactly like his casino boss persona from "Ocean's Eleven").

With a million bucks at play, all sorts of vermin come out of the woodwork in hope of collecting the bounty, and since this is a movie of this particular genre, they're all different enough to make things interesting. At least in theory.

Beyond the rambunctious but deadly skinheads, there's a master of disguise (no, not Dana Carvey, although that movie of his was deadly enough in its own right to kill a casino full of snitches), some sort of torturer, three bail bondsmen turned hitmen (led by, of all people, Ben Affleck), and two ladies who pack plenty of heat.

Throw in three equally disparate bodyguards for Buddy, two FBI agents (Ray Liotta and the unlikely Ryan "Van Wilder" Reynolds), lots of guns, and the Vegas setting, and the stage would seem set for an exhilarating ride as the snitch tries to stay alive, the assassins try to kill him, and the FBI tries to keep him alive.

While one can't accuse the film of ever being boring from a pure experience standpoint (what with all of the action, hyper editing and more), it just isn't that interesting and it certainly isn't engaging. There are too many characters, but not enough story, at least in terms of creating a compelling plotline or personas. It certainly isn't as clever or smart as it could and should have been, especially considering that's exactly what it's trying to be.

It certainly makes one long for early Guy Ritchie (from which this film heavily borrows or at least was influenced by in terms of frenetic style and over the top, ruffian characters) or Quentin Tarantino regarding how the story should have been told for maximum cool effect.

The main problem (among many smaller, but still troublesome ones) is that despite all of the exotic characters and filmmaking flair, the story is too straightforward and doesn't capture our interest or imagination to make us want to go along for the ride. While it has a few cool moments (in terms of shoot 'em up action sequences), "Smokin' Aces" is otherwise a busted hand that viewers outside of the desired demographic will want to fold long before it's over. The film rates as a 3 out of 10.

Reviewed January 23, 2007 / Posted January 26, 2007

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